Churchianity vs Christianity, Part 3
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.
After I finished my graduate degree I spent a year in an administrative fellowship. One of the perpetual assignments for fellows was to coordinate the annual United Way campaign for the organization. The local United Way chapter at that time (1990) guaranteed that 90% of all donations received would go directly to services for people in need. In other words, United Way assured donors it would use less than 10% of what they received on their own administrative functions (salaries, facilities, etc.), and they would only distribute money to local organizations that met their administrative costs from other sources. In that way the United Way funds would directly fund the services those organizations provided to people in need. Most charities today spend at least 40% of their funding on administrative costs with some spending 80% or more.
I have heard that if we want to see where a person’s heart is we should look at their checkbook. How do we spend the financial resources we have? Certainly, some must go to basic needs like food, shelter, and clothing, but what happens with the funds left over, if any, after basic needs are met? Of course, we all define basic needs differently. A modest, studio apartment might suffice as shelter for one person, where another would feel they need stand-alone housing in a desirable neighborhood. The key question has to do with how much of what we have do we keep for ourselves for desires above and beyond our needs, and how much do we pass along to others whose barest of needs are not being met. While there are no clear guidelines for resolving the dilemma, I do believe we are expected to wrestle with it, especially if we consider ourselves Christian.
We can and should ask the same question of our churches – where would our church’s checkbook show its heart to be? How much of what we donate to a church goes toward supporting the church’s administrative structure as opposed to how much is going to fund services to those in desperate need outside of the church? Certainly paying a fair wage to those needed to coordinate the church’s work is important, as is the maintenance of a facility from which its members can do ministry.
I daresay that most churches have large facilities that sit mostly empty for the largest part of every week, even during pre-COVID times. Some churches share facilities with other organizations like schools and theaters. My church attempted to use some of its empty space as an emergency shelter for persons sleeping outside in the winter of 2019, a seemingly very Christian thing to do. Unfortunately, the effort ran afoul of City Codes, raised concerns from the church’s insurer, and met strong objections from some of its members. Granted, the space was not designed to be a shelter, but it was space, it was warm, and it was out of the elements. The sad truth is that a building considered ideal for Sunday morning worship is not necessarily very useful for the remaining 98% of each week, or for meeting the needs of marginalized non-members in the community. Should we ask if our standards for an acceptable worship environment could be altered in ways that would allow our facilities to be used to meet more of the needs of our neighbors? It is a hard question, but it is an important one as we consider whether we are practicing Churchianity or whether we are serious about Christianity. Remember, Jesus never told us to worship him. Jesus told us to follow him – to do what he did, to treat others how he treated them. Granted, he did spend time in the Temple of his day, but he carried out most of his ministry outside of the Temple. His worship of God did not suffer for being away from the Temple or synagogues. He went where the suffering was and never demanded that the suffering come to him.
Could the historical and institutional structures of the church be holding us back from transforming our members and providing ways for them to act as Jesus to a hurting world? Are we unintentionally “locking people out of the kingdom of heaven,” as Jesus accused the religious leaders of his day of doing? It may be that many churches are struggling because more and more people are seeking organizations that follow the lead of Christ, whether or not they are overtly religious organizations. When our checkbooks primarily fund and our facilities primarily host Sunday morning worship, we may be practicing Churchianity.
This is the 3rd in a series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at email@example.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.